Whitehot Magazine

Coded: Art Enters the Computer Age, 1952-1982 at LACMA

Installation photograph, Coded: Art Enters the Computer Age, 1952–1982, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, February 12–July 2, 2023, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA



By PETER FRANK, June 2023

At a moment of what seems like digital apotheosis -- not least in the visual arts – a museum exhibition devoted to early computer art seems at once timely and corny. “Coded: Art Enters the Computer Age, 1952-1982” brings back to life all sorts of creaky experiments and fugitive objects realized across the postwar era by artists itching to expand their toolbox with the most advanced tools, data-organizing and form-driving, science could provide them. It’s an itch artists are always scratching, but in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s they were being tantalized by enormous machines doing peculiar things that seemed at once mind-numbing and mysterious. In an era of nuclear delirium, the promise was at once one of destruction and one of revelation, a way through cold wars to warm art through hot wires.  

The first personal computers became available in the early ‘80s, when the purview of “Coded” ends. Before then, artists would have to collaborate with scientists and/or technicians or learn Fortran themselves and cozy up at night to the IBM mainframe installed in the basement of the math building. This (often surreptitious) siphoning of computer time was in effect playing with a robot – or robotic brain – the size and intricacy of a cathedral organ. Many who attempted to generate a substantive electronic oeuvre failed to produce much of anything at all; many more failed to produce anything more than a stack of punch cards and grainy data charts. Thanks to forty years of hindsight, the curation of “Coded,” headed by LACMA’s Leslie Jones, keeps things visually as well as informationally engaging. And, of course, the vintage quality of the artifacts on display has its own charm. “Coded” succeeds partly through a deft employment of the Smithsonian Effect, provoking nostalgia amongst older visitors and a Tomorrowland retro-futurist swoon amongst preteen techies. 

Eduardo Paolozzi, Universal Electronic Vacuum: Computer-Epoch, 1967, screenprint, 40 × 28 in. (101.6 × 71.1 cm), University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, gift of Eduardo Paolozzi, © The Paolozzi Foundation, licensed by DACS/ARS 2023, photos courtesy of the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive

And it’s art. And not by accident. Though relatively little in “Coded” gooses the eyeballs, the show’s explication of history and process (its wall labels are detailed but quite readable and helpful) rivets the attention but keeps the objects in question foremost. The overall curatorial narrative, celebrating artistic curiosity and the can-do tenor of those times, proves infectious.  The curation of “Coded” is broad and inclusive, and there is a lot to see and be distracted by, nay, sucked into. In this, it quite deliberately revives the kitchen-sink-cum-funhouse aesthetic of computer- and information-art exhibitions of the very period it documents. But those hoary gallimaufries of burgeoning metadata and electronic prestidigitation tended to err on the side of inclusion. Everybody with time reserved on a mainframe wound up in a survey, no matter how esoteric or unkind to the eyes. This show – again, with the benefit of hindsight – instead brings to the fore those cybernetic experimentalists who sought not just to conflate, but to harmonize, the concrete and the conceptual as best their tools as well as skills let them. 

Sonya Rapoport, page 4 from Anasazi Series II, 1977, pencil, Prismacolor, colored typewriter, and computer print on continuous-feed computer paper, sheet: 11 × 14 5/16 in., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, purchased with fund provided by the Prints and Drawings Council and the Stephen A. Kanter Trust, by exchange, © Estate of Sonya Rapoport, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

Some of these folks are already well known in other (if related) artistic contexts – Fluxus artists like Alison Knowles and Jackson MacLow, for instance, or grid-based “orthodox” conceptualists such as Jennifer Bartlett and Sol LeWitt – but many others will be new to most visitors, and not a few of these attract attention not simply for their inventive employment of cybernetic computation but for their ability to make art that stands on its own as art, its technological razzle-dazzle notwithstanding. The sensuous minimalism of Vera Molnar, the notational energy of Sonya Rapoport, the simple, luminous cartographies of Harold Cohen, the interwoven sociologies composed by Stephen Willats, Desmond Paul Henry’s voluptuous pen plotter drawings, Jean-Pierre Hébert’s delicate non-objective pointillism, and many other hidden gems clamor to have their makers better known, not only as key figures in the aestheticization of the data processor but as substantive artists of the later 20th century.

Vera Molnár, À la recherche de Paul Klee, 1970, ink plotter drawing, 29⅛ × 29⅛ in., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, purchased with funds from the Prints and Drawings Council, © Vera Molnár, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

“Coded” also does a good job of documenting, in context, early achievements in the other – time-based and language-based – arts, some of which is accessible through the show’s LACMA webpage [https://www.lacma.org/codedsoundtrack]. The period in question, after all, saw an explosion in intermedia such as concrete poetry, visual music, and performance art, and the computer promised a framework which would obviate distinctions between artistic disciplines. The fact that it took another several decades to deliver on that promise makes the work in “Coded” that much more poignant: the show is full of good guesses and near misses made by sometimes brilliant people whose vision drove the evolution of computers as much as computers drove their vision. The catalogue, a readable, picture-rich gem of scholarship, is as much a geek treat as the show itself is. 

“Coded” has its flaws. (It allows a confusion of computer-made art and computer- and computation-related art, for instance, so that Edward Kienholz’s 1965 Friendly Gray Computer assemblage becomes a totem for the machine itself, and a Donald Judd wall sculpture “represents” advanced mathematics because it embodies the Fibonacci sequence.) But they are few, far between, and only momentarily distracting (and not unhelpful, actually); “Coded” provides us such a lucid history of such a sprawling subject that there’s room for such diversion – and curatorial wit. WM


Peter Frank

PETER FRANK is an art critic, curator, and editor based in Los Angeles, where he serves as Associate Editor of Fabrik Magazine. He began his career in his native New York, where he wrote for The Village Voice and The SoHo Weekly News and organized exhibitions for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Alternative Museum. He is former Senior Curator at the Riverside (CA) Art Museum and former editor of Visions Art Quarterly and THEmagazine Los Angeles, and was art critic for LA Weekly and Angeleno Magazine. He has worked curatorially for Documenta, the Venice Biennale, and many other national and international venues.  (Photo: Eric Minh Swenson) 



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